If you think college is only for rich kids, you’re not alone. One of the longest-standing myths in the higher education world is that you need to have deep pockets in order to get a degree—and unfortunately, the recent college admission scandal that’s rocked the country has done nothing to dispel this belief. But the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth! There are many ways deserving students can make their college dreams possible without totally breaking the bank (or resorting to bribery).
First, you need to look at college with a growth mindset. There’s a good chance you’ve heard people talk about college as an investment in your future—and one that pays off over time. If you view higher education this way, it makes it easier to see how paying off your debt over time is a reasonable approach to affording a degree, with one caveat: how you afford college may look entirely different than how your peers afford it. The good news is that making college both accessible and affordable is within your reach. Here are six ways you can make a post-secondary education a reality for you.
Federal aid in the form of loans and grants
Your first order of business is to look into the federal financial aid program. Through the FAFSA, everyone is eligible to apply for loans. The benefits of borrowing money for college from the federal government include lower interest rates and better terms. If you qualify, you may also be eligible to receive aid in the form of grants, which is money you don’t have to pay back. Plus, if you demonstrate financial need, you may qualify for subsidized loans, which means the federal government pays the interest on the loan while you’re in school.
Start at a community college
For many students, the option of starting at a community college means they’ll be able to pursue a four-year degree without taking on a massive pile of student loan debt. Community colleges offer students the first two years of college with the option of finishing a technical or two-year degree or completing an associate degree that can transfer to a four-year college. The cost advantage of completing your first two years at a community college is significant. For starters, tuition is lower, and if you can live at home, you’ll save on room and board. These two factors combined can potentially save you thousands of dollars.
Apply for scholarships
Scholarships are available through both private donors and the school you plan on attending. If you’re still in high school, it’s a good idea to begin your scholarship search before your senior year. This will give you a chance to see what the providers are looking for and which scholarships you may be eligible for. Once your senior year begins, plan on filling out scholarship applications from September through the end of your senior year. Typically, scholarship season is most active from September to April.
Work while going to school
Another popular option among students is working while going to college. For some, this may be minimal work to help cover some basic costs (like a part-time job or work-study). But for others, this could mean going to school part-time while working as many hours as possible. While this option may require you to be in school longer than the typical four years, you will likely borrow less money and pay for some of your schooling along the way. For example, rather than taking the full-time academic load of 15 credits per quarter, you may only take eight credits while working 30 hours a week.
Earn a four-year degree on a community college campus
More and more community colleges are partnering with four-year colleges and universities to offer degrees on site. What this means for you is the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree without leaving home. Typically, you will complete your first two years at the community college, then once you have your associate degree, you will apply to a bachelor’s degree program on the same campus. In addition to saving money on your overall college costs, remaining on campus can also help with a smoother transition to your degree program.
Consider private student loans
If you’ve maximized federal aid, applied for scholarships, and still need more money to cover the financial gap, you may want to consider private student loans. Separate from the federal loan program, private loans are issued by lenders associated with banks or credit unions. Each lender sets their own rates, terms, and fees, so if you’re considering this option, it’s worth your time to shop around.
Long story short: Don’t be discouraged about the cost of college! If your dream school seems out of reach, there are many options you can pursue to get there. And if you and your family really can't make it work, there are certainly a lot of other colleges that will fit you both academically and financially. Good luck with your search and don't give up!
For even more advice that can help make your higher education more affordable, check out our Financial Aid section.